The Potential of European Might

Obstacles to European defense cooperation are numerous and unlikely to be overcome.

War, said Clausewitz is nothing but a continuation of political intercourse, with the mixture of other means. If your politics or those of some other propel you to military action, then that is what must be done.

The recent appointment (not election) of a European president unifies the European Union, politically more than has been seen before, with the addition of a “High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy” providing the bloc with a mouthpiece on strategic affairs which one presumes will include out of area operations of a military nature and a unified approach to the strategic defense of the EU as a whole.

Shortly after the establishment of the EU’s chrysalis the European Economic Community, there were plans put forward by France, West Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxemburg to establish a European Defense Community but this fell apart, even on the wave of “new world” or “new Europe” belief which was prevalent at the time. The European “community” continued down the road of economics while defense was left to the already established North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

The benefits of NATO were multiple over the EDC, primarily American involvement. Racked by the Second World War, the states of Europe were incapable of allied action against the Soviet Union and the United States became the prime shield against the Red Menace, with European states contributing what little they could.

This continues somewhat today. In the event of Russian aggression, it is NATO which would form the dominant element and the basis of defense for European states.

Foreign policy initiatives were brought in during the 1970s with the establishment of the European Political Cooperation Process which arranged regular meetings for foreign ministers across Western Europe to agree on unified action. The collapse of the Soviet menace removed a certain level of threat facing Europe and with it, the American counterbalance could be, and was somewhat, withdrawn.

Since that time, further political and economic integration across Europe has come in rapid succession; with the establishment of the European Monetary Union, the Maastricht treaty, the Lisbon Treaty and so on.

The recent developments of appointing a president and foreign minister seem the next step. However, to what extent can the EU truly act in such matters? The Yugoslav conflict and the Balkan Wars highlighted the possibility for a single European capability for military action. Within the EU, security had been long assured and so the only purpose for such an established “European military” would be for external use and protection.

Internal conflicts bring forth their own unique possibilities. The idea of a EU military being used internally is repellent to pro- and anti-European commentators alike, for what would it be but an autonomous gendarmerie, keeping everyone towing the same European line even if they didn’t want to? One dreads the possibility that Brussels could order action to prevent “cessation from the union” by military force.

This goes someway to explaining the reluctance for the establishment of European capability as anything more than an alliance of existing state apparatus. After the Cold War, a new security environment seemed to form, what Franci Fukuyama called “an end of history” but which would turn out to be nothing of the kind. The multilateralism which was presumed to follow did not appear due to the expansive power of American hegemony.

This hegemony plays its part in Europe still. Typically, the United Kingdom of Great Britain is divided between looking west, where it has most in common, or looking east on the basis that that is the inevitable state of Europe; to integrate. Its ties with the United States have often, in Britain at least, been the deciding factor in the choice between cooperation with either, as can be argued with the Iraqi conflict and the Blair-Bush friendship. This will most likely continue to shape British foreign policy for some years to come while the United States both more influential in Britain and more importantly, the world, when compared to Europe.

Measures to form a close knit security system across the European Union in the past were both confused and ineffective. The establishments of various institutions have not always been put together with efficiency in mind. The Political and Security Committee, established by the Nice Treaty, exists alongside a Committee of Permanent Representatives and the General Affairs and External Relations Council (the meeting of foreign ministers of unified foreign policy). All exist at once and separate to the economic elements of the EU which determine economic foreign policy (aid, trade, etcetera) and are also severely split across multiple bureaucracies.

In short, the framework or foundations of a combined strategic capability seem to be nonexistent at a time when an official has already been appointed to direct them. Foreign ministers still meet with each other despite the establishment of the new post and shall most likely continue to do so. After all, as long as the EU member states remain just that; states, they shall have their own agendas and conduct business with other members as states, further bringing into question the effectiveness of any unified action when internal division exists both in practice and potential.

To quote Andew Cottey in Security in the New Europe, “The intergovernmental character of the [Common Foreign and Security Policy] shapes and constrains the EU’s ambitions fundamentally in this area. In essence, the CFSP depends on the EU’s member states, especially its largest members, sharing common foreign policy objectives and priorities.” And it is hard to see how that alters with the addition of a new post to coordinate the monolithic and separate systems which determine EU “foreign policy.”

While military structure is not the alpha and omega of foreign policy, it is worth studying for obvious reasons that, it will determine engagements of a military nature for the EU when small wars like Afghanistan are taking place and strategic concerns grow as toward Russia, China and the fall of American power.

The existence of a European military capability accountable to only the president, or as part of some loan from member states still has the effect of creating a new, large capability on the world stage. It, in theory, combines the huge economic power of the EU with a diverse, presumably reasonably financed set of armed forces.

The immediate neighbor, Russia, has already involved itself in the affairs of the pro-European states of its former influence and often voices opposition to expansions of the EU eastward but more importantly, the expansion of NATO. While NATO is a separate body from the EU, a militarized EU would pose a markedly similar presence to NATO to be almost identical, if not more threatening, to Russia’s position and sense of security.

Economic expansion to the east would bring with it military and political influence into former Russian areas such as Georgia and the Ukraine. A conflict between the EU and Russia may be hard to imagine but it is difficult to imagine anything other if former Warsaw Pact states enter into an increasingly unified Europe. The question must be “where do we draw the line?” and then gauging if the line is too far for Russia.

The arrival of a new player, externally greater than the sum of its parts, on the world stage poses problems similar to the unification of Germany in 1871 but writ large. At whose expense would the new EU, with its new strategic assets, carve its place internationally? We cannot presume that there is space to be filled in the current globalized world, influenced heavily by the primacy of the United States and the ensuing power struggle that China is drawn to. America itself may have something to say about the loss of its strategic influence on the European continent. The Gaullist school which runs rife in pro-EU halls has a distinctly but understandably anti-American flavor to it, even if the French opposition to the Iraq War, and similar episodes like it, are laid to rest.

The “ethical superiority” that many Europeans felt when the predominantly Anglo-Saxon Coalition of the Willing went to war was not some sudden phenomena but the result of views and opinions within European culture and there’s nothing to suggest that even with the arrival of the four to eight year tenure of Barack Obama, this will not happen again the next time that the United States act within its best interests, or what it believes to be a vital mission for its security.

In pure numerical terms, the United Kingdom and a hand full of other EU member states were in the minority when the Iraq War kicked off. The main players, France and Germany, were opposed to assisting the Americans while Spain soon withdrew from operations after the Madrid bombings caused a general election.

Military and naval operations of a unified nature have been called for on certain issues in the recent past and some aid operations have even proved successful such as in the tsunami disasters which dogged Indian and Pacific Ocean dwellers these past few decades, yet it was national, allied action, not EU action which stood out as the framework.

Physical aid supply may not be beyond the EU’s current potential but military operations certainly are. The Helsinki Goal was an aim born from realizations of the Kosovo war that “Europe” could not react to even nearby emergencies as a single whole and that it was overwhelmingly dependent on American assistance to achieve anything. The aim of the Helsinki Goal was to establish capability of a force of over 50,000 to be deployable by 2003: about the size of a corps, which could be deployed within sixty days and be capable of sustaining itself, i.e., having attributes clerical, logistical and intelligence, command and even all arms capability (air and naval as well as army) — no small feat for a collection of states which couldn’t put together a force just four years earlier.

Now almost seven years later, the concept has stagnated and we still don’t have a “European Rapid Reaction Force” of the kind of divisions and groups which NATO was deploying and putting on exercises during the Cold War. The EU mission in Macedonia has the mighty power of some four hundred troops while only 7,000 could be found to take over from the NATO commitment to postwar Bosnia. Advisory and small-scale operations in Asia and Africa are the sum potency of the EU’s current military capability. The Helsinki Goal mentioned above was later dropped to a 12,500 strong force capability by 2010 and shows you what to expect in the future.

The difference between the ERRF and a European army is because it represents contribution from member states, not direct enlistment to one force. But the ERRF would still be dependent on the agreement of those states to send forces. If one can imagine that a corps is assembled and one state provides key certain elements, yet is reluctant to deploy them despite directive from the EU foreign minister or president, then the force as a whole loses a disproportionate amount of potency.

Nevertheless, the EU being the EU, it established another institution; the EUMC (European Union Military Committee) to manage and plan military operations and provide and direct a European military staff. Out of area operations, that is those not in the likely trouble spots of the Balkans, or dealing with the Russians, seem to be desired capability for an ERRF as a military arm of what “European foreign policy,” we presume, is all about. Sanctions on African dictators and Arab oil despots can only take you so far. Even in the European theater, physical constraints on an ERRF or anything like it, must be considered.

The United States currently field a defense budget far larger than the economies of most European states, far in advance of its closest rivals. In a closer European Union where member states act as one on the international stage, we must presume that their state forces are amalgamated to contributory units of “Eurocorps” but where is the initiative for defense spending to lie?

In a federal Europe, defense spending would drop astronomically from the figure currently held by the separate member states, due to the unity of organizational structures, research and development and shared security objectives but in the unfederalized EU of the near future, this budget could also take a knocking. No state wants to spend money on forces which will never get used because members cannot agree when to use them. Capability is based on necessity after all but also plausibility.

An ERRF would require direction from the Brussels establishment in how it is to be constructed and organized, in other words, who pays for what. For example, “France will be the core component of Brigades 1 to 4, providing tactical and strategic rotary wing lift and airborne forces” (like a US Airborne division) or Italians providing field hospitals and medics for the force. This means a redirection of the French military budget from a more general capability of all arms services, to this new emphasis of a certain type of operations and likewise the Italian budget. Without support though, which must be put forward by potentially unwilling members, the force remains awkward and potentially useless.

Should an alternative be chosen in which, say, all states field what they can from their existing militaries, the problem arises of operational direction and unity. Units from different states would have to train together on a highly regular basis or risk ineffectiveness in theater. The states with established, larger capability will feel they are “footing a bigger bill” than those with smaller forces.

As of 2007, EU heads of state indicated a desire for a battle group system, made up of twelve battle groups, one for each of the larger states and shared input for smaller ones. This system is under the auspices of the European Defense Agency, which also promotes things such as armaments direction (telling states what they should invest in as part of the battle group system) and armaments development. Given the track record for EU cooperation in this field, the results could be laughable.

The future of EU strategic capability remains highly questionable; based on a number of serious “maybes” such as willingness of member states to participate, allocation of duty and resource, or the availability of forces which may be involved in state led operations.

Having said that, the battle group system is at current the most prolific and favorable concept. A number of such groups have already been formed and are in the process of creation. It remains questionable whether they will be effective in deployment, however, as one has not yet been tested. The obstacles to deployment are still numerous and in some cases quite large, bringing into question if they will be used. The system is not a standing force and merely provides the EU with a catalogue of forces which its directors may call upon to provide certain capabilities. It is by no means yet the ERRF of legend, nor has it the potential to act as an orderly strategic or operational force in the world’s conflict zones.


  1. Why is it so difficult for EU member states to cooperate in the defense area, when they seem to have very little trouble doing so within the structure of NATO?

    Speaking of NATO, do we actually need a European army of sorts, when the alliance with the Americans and the Canadians has proven so much more effective?

  2. Perhaps cooperation is difficult because of a difference in unified strategic goal. In the Cold War, NATO existed to counter the Soviets, but that was never tested. Discerning the NATO sheep from the goats is difficult in an enviroment where they haven’t been tested. I have to take issue with the idea that it’s much easier in NATO, it isn’t NATO’s difficult to run in and in many ways quite unweildy, but it’s got US backing and is much older, and born out of an intense necessity.

    Why not keep NATO instead? Why not indeed!

  3. Oh, we should keep NATO, absolutely. In fact, I rather wonder why we need something of an European alternative to it, when we have NATO…

    You’re probably right on the lack of a goal making it difficult to come to a permanent defense structure nowadays. With no clear, single enemy, let alone much of a real threat to Western security, why establish another defensive alliance, right?

  4. Quite so, but out of area operations being a key potential aim, as you’ve said about humanitarian aid and the miliary dynamic of that; the small wars of interventionist policies, may all be things that elements of the EU would like to posess to sure-up the EUs position in the world. As I question, what’s the point of having a Foreign Minsiter if a huge chunk of what that role should probably entail is absent; strategic capability of a military nature. Also, the fact that North America is involved in NATO may be seen as a bad thing by those who want an EU only solution.

  5. Sure, but there’s plenty of countries that value the atlantic alliance on the other hand, like Britain, the Netherlands, Poland, etc. Going through the trouble of setting up something of a EU defense force, especially during a stage when we can’t even agree on a foreign policy, seems like looking for problems when there’s really no need for it.

  6. Couldn’t agree more. But one does wonder what the point is in an EU officer for security, if they have no security to direct.

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